How the Oklahoma Sooners and the Selma Marches Saved Alabama Football

Legendary...for more than one reason - Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, in lieu of practice, the University of Oklahoma football team stood silently in their indoor practice facility as a protest against racism. It was a purely symbolic act, but one whose meaning was magnified tenfold by the 1956 National Championship banner on the wall behind them.

In 1955 the University of Oklahoma opened admission to blacks and, that next year, Sooners Head Coach Bud Wilkinson brought running back Prentice Gautt onto the team. Gautt was a freshman the 1956 season and did not play on the varsity squad but, for all intents and purposes, a integrated team had won the National Championship.

Two days ago marked the 50th anniversary of the infamous "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma. A half century ago the nation reacted in horror as it witnessed uniformed officers attack peaceful marchers. Here was the awful face of institutional racism revealed and unapologetic in its defiance. The incident galvanized the public in a way the outrages of segregation had not done before.

These two events are often not recognized for their vast importance to the integration of the University of Alabama football team.

When Paul W. Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1958 to take over the Crimson Tide football program, he came from the segregated Southwest Conference. He had witnessed first hand how an obstinate insistence on the separation of races would hobble a program as other teams embraced integration.

Wilkinson, who was a good friend of Bryant's, was able to bring black athletes onto his team since it was a member of the Big Eight conference. As a result, Oklahoma was able to draw from a larger pool of athletes and the Sooners were not barred from playing integrated teams from other parts of the country.

The pathway to national championships were open to Oklahoma in a way it was not for teams like Bryant's Texas A&M squad in the Southwest Conference.

Yet integrating OU football was a risky move at the time. The breakthrough Brown vs Board of Education ruling had been handed down just two years prior and tensions over the issue of integration had risen dramatically nationwide. In 1956, the University of Alabama was roiled by protests that drove its first black student, Autherine Lucy, from the campus. Civil unrest was a constant fear from then on.

Oklahoma had been the subject of a key case preceding the Brown ruling by the supreme court and the experience of that student, Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, were not encouraging. By integrating his team Wilkinson faced pressure from boosters and fans while Gautt had to withstand the burdens of bigotry and isolation.

But the University of Oklahoma team stood behind their teammate. While on the freshman squad, Gautt was refused service at a Tulsa restaurant. The rest of the team walked out with him.

Wilkinson' success at integrating the Sooners football team was accomplished by first breaking the barrier of playing integrated opponents. He then carefully selecting the first black athlete and providing him sufficient support to handle the challenges of the pioneering role. It was a blueprint of how a program could overcome the historic racism that had plagued the sport. Bryant followed this formula almost exactly.

In 1959, his second season, Bryant took his team to Philadelphia to play in the inaugural Liberty Bowl game against Penn State. He did so with the tacit agreement of the university's power brokers and boosters that it would mean breaking the ban against playing only all-white teams. The game, which Alabama lost, is notable for the almost complete absence of controversy.

For the next step, Bryant would have to wait for the admission of black students to the University of Alabama which had been curtailed after Autherine Lucy's expulsion. This was delayed five years as the civil rights movement exploded across the south and polarized opposing groups. But eventually it came. Moments after Alabama Governor George Wallace made his famous defiant stand in the door of Foster Auditorium, Vivian Malone and James Hood walked through it and were admitted to the school.

By this time, Bryant had built Alabama football into a national powerhouse. His foresight of breaking the barrier against playing integrated opponents came to fruition, ironically, against Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma Sooners in the 1962 Orange Bowl. The Crimson Tide beat OU 17-0 in that game. Three years later, the Tide would defeat an integrated Nebraska team to claim the national championship.

Then came Selma.

Alabama had been named the 1964 National Champions at the end of the regular season. When the Tide fell to the Texas Longhorns in the 1965 Orange Bowl, it unleashed a storm of controversy. The next season the rules changed, the national champion would be named after the bowl games. Alabama went into New Year's Day with a No. 4 ranking. Then No. 1 Michigan State lost. And No. 2 Arkansas. Then the Tide trounced No. 3 Nebraska to claim the title.

It seemed perverse to many that Alabama claimed two championships this way while the state the team heralded from was filling the evening news with terrible images of racial violence. The confrontations on the streets of Birmingham between marchers and law enforcement in 1963 had been appalling and the governor's unapologetic defiance only acerbated the perception of the state.

It was Selma that brought that all into focus.

In his book, The Missing Ring, author Keith Dunnavant argues persuasively that Alabama was denied the 1966 National Championship by the poll voters who were swayed as much by the state's violent opposition to the civil rights movement as the controversial outcome of the 1966 season. The Tide had gone unbeaten but was passed over for the title for Notre Dame who had played Michigan State to a tie in the regular season. The Spartans were named No. 2.

After Selma it became impossible to separate the moral issue of segregation from Alabama's play on the field. To win another national title, the Crimson Tide would have to integrate.

The outcome of the 1966 season was a blow to Bryant and Alabama football stumbled over the next few years. He even considered coaching professional football. Eventually, in his typical manner, he took it as a challenge. And when he did, Bryant resumed following Bud Wilkinson's template for integrating his team.

Although Prentice Gautt was Oklahoma's first black player at least three other black athletes had tried out for the Sooners squad before him – with Wilkinson's tacit consent. In 1966, Bryant was approached by a black athlete, Dock Rone, who asked to join the team and the coach agreed. While Rone would not join the team that fall he did take part in the 1967 spring practice. He was joined by four other black athletes.

This integrated Alabama team would play a closed Spring scrimmage before the governor of the state, Lurleen Wallace, who had been as vociferous in defending segregation as her husband. But nary a word was uttered about the black players on the team she watched play.

Wilkinson had shown that not only was it possible to win championships with black players, but as the barriers of segregation crumbled, it would be required to win. This was a final bit of proof Bryant could use against any bitter holdouts – no matter how politically powerful they might be – that might protest a black player on his Alabama team.

By the time Alabama met USC in 1970 for the famous game many contend was the deathblow to segregation of Crimson Tide football, most of the major obstacles to integration had already fallen away. Wilbur Jackson, the first scholarship football player at UA, was in the stands for the game because, as a freshman, he was not permitted to play with the varsity. The next season, against USC in Los Angeles, John Mitchell became the first black player to wear the Crimson and White in a varsity game as Alabama avenged the loss in Birmingham.

What happened today in Oklahoma serves as a stark reminder that these events still resonate and hold a profound meaning. Almost every player who was the first black athlete on a major college football team said they experienced the same thing; anonymous threats, vocal abuse and social ostracism. While the barriers that had kept them from the classrooms and playing fields had fallen, the more insidious social barriers remained very real. We saw today they still are.

But Wilkinson and Bryant showed not only a way to overcome those prejudices and hatred, they showed why it was important to do so. Because embracing a world of ossified bigotry out of fear was an endeavor doomed to defeat. Greatness, they knew, cannot flower in a world circumscribed by hate.


[Ed. Note: We were going to hold off on announcing this, but our old friend Kleph has been gracious enough to provide us a few things of an historical bent -- when his time and scheduling permit. C.J.s pieces are always insightful, well-written, opinionated, and true treasures to our little corner of the blogosphere. We hope old readers welcome him back and new readers learn to fall in love with Alabama's past.]

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